He kept the presses running and could never have imagined a world without the aroma of fresh ink on newsprint…

May 8, 2009

Cropped MikeThe letter from the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware arrived a few days ago, but there’s no need for me to respond: The Tribune Company doesn’t owe me any money. I received my last check from them a few days before Sam Zell completed his leveraged buyout of the company.

Although this bankruptcy proceeding may presage the beginning of the end for yet another great newspaper, I’m not keening and wailing. I mourned the Tribune’s demise decades ago when we started to receive a truncated version of the original here in Madison. The so-called Midwest Edition wasn’t worth the time or the money, so I abandoned it.

Even though I was born and raised in Madison, I grew up reading the Chicago Tribune as well as the local newspapers. I read the Tribune because my maternal grandfather subscribed to it. He was a fan of its feisty conservative editor Colonel Robert McCormick. He admired the Colonel’s work ethic and stamina, but cautioned me not to be taken in by his bizarre campaign to reform spelling, taking care to point out words that should not be spelled the way they were spelled in the Tribune.

It was in the funny pages section of the Chicago Tribune that I first encountered that dashing, adventurous red-haired reporter, Brenda Starr and her man of mystery, Basil St. John. She became a role model. He became a source of fascination. Looking back, I think it may have been because Basil, like my father, seemed elusive – always being lost and found.

My grandfather preferred reading about the adventures of another redhead: Little Orphan Annie. We both marveled at Dick Tracy’s 2-Way Wrist Radio. And it was my grandfather who taught me to look for the annual “Injun Summer” story on the front page of the Tribune’s Sunday magazine: It spoke of long ago days and reminded those of us who lived in the Midwest that winter was not far off.

Injun Summer

My grandfather spent his entire career in the newspaper business, so I not only grew up reading lots of newspapers, I spent many hours hanging around the Madison Newspapers building on S. Carroll Street, watching the Wisconsin State Journal and The Capital Times being created on a daily basis. On the upper floors of the building, reporters typed copy, made phone calls, smoked, drank coffee, took a nip from the bottle of booze hidden in their desks, and told colorful stories never destined to make it into print.

Mike and the press

The press room with its huge, noisy machines and dark, pungent-smelling ink was on the ground floor. This was my grandfather’s domain: He was superintendent of the press room. He arrived in Madison on Thanksgiving Day 1918, and during his almost 40-year tenure “Mike” and his team never missed an issue – even though the presses were replaced several times over the decades. He loved newspapers and loved his job – and he couldn’t stay retired. When yet another new press was installed in the building on S. Carroll Street in 1961, my grandfather, who was born during the depression years of the late 19th century, when Grover Cleveland was President of the United States, was called back to supervise the process.

During his 91 years on Earth, my grandfather lived through several economic depressions and two world wars; he was witness to extraordinary changes in science and technology and usually embraced them. He watched hundreds of individual newspapers dissolve and merge, but he would never have imagined that the newspaper as an institution would find itself in the throes of death. He could never have imagined a world without newsprint and ink. He could never have imagined a world where the Chicago Tribune found it necessary to file for bankruptcy.

Large rolls of newsprint paper being unloaded in from of the Wisconsin State Journal building at 115 S. Carroll Street, circa 1939

Large rolls of newsprint paper being unloaded in from of the Wisconsin State Journal building at 115 S. Carroll Street, circa 1939

I find myself increasingly ambivalent about the fate of newspapers. I love the look, the feel – even the aroma – of a freshly printed newspaper. I can’t imagine reading a newspaper on a Kindle. But local newspapers are increasingly filled not with local news, but warmed-over wire service stories and inane syndicated feature stories.

If I want news, I turn on my computer and search the Internet, where I can find local news, as well as news from around the world, great photography, and an extraordinary array of videos. If I want inane stories about vapid celebrities and tedious articles about how to redecorate on the cheap, I’ll hang around the dentist’s waiting room and read magazines.

If I crave old-fashioned newspapers, I’ll have to use some of my frequent flyer miles and head across the pond to London, where I can still spend a Sunday morning in bed with Himself and a basket of chocolate croissants, wading through a variety of newspapers with distinct personalities, clever writing, stunning photography, amusing gossip, the court circular, and the latest rugby scores.

Anonymous May 8, 2009 at 4:24 pm

Interesting – coincidence
In the late 40's early 50's,our grandfather worked in the same press room, Ed Elliott kind, sweet & wonderful story teller proud Irish-American w/8 children & 50+ grandchildren.
At the time, I attended St Rays & was in 1st grade. Instead of taking the bus home, I would watch our grandfather push those big rolls of newsprint around- he was

Rich May 11, 2009 at 6:55 pm

Here in Boston The Boston Globe may be a gonner soon as well. I think they’ve done it too themeselves quite frankly with their left leaning biased politics.

SMarty May 15, 2009 at 8:30 pm

Thanks for sharing your story and photos. I feel the same way about my parents and farming.

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